Trump’s first 100 days? I’d give him a D at best

Donald Trump's performance in the White House has been strikingly lacklustre, writes Hussein Ibish

Donald Trump after arriving to the south lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. Saul Loeb / AFP
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This weekend marked the hundredth day of the Trump administration, an arbitrary benchmark that nonetheless provides an opportunity for essential stocktaking.

Overall, the performance is strikingly lacklustre, not just compared to the original “hundred day” political hurricane of Franklin D Roosevelt, but even a more typical predecessor such as Barack Obama.

Arguably Donald Trump’s biggest success thus far is weathering the storm over his campaign’s ties to Russian intelligence. The issue has receded to the back burner, but serious investigations are continuing and further revelations inevitable. The ultimate consequences remain uncertain and potentially dire.

Otherwise, there has been astonishingly little achievement by the “great disrupter”. Mercifully, he has been busy rethinking, and reneging on, a panoply of, mostly ridiculous or awful, campaign promises.

Several recent developments demonstrate the endemic dysfunction.

The president’s second major effort to get a Congress totally dominated by his own party to pass his scandalously immoral bill to gut health care has again crashed and burnt.

Mr Trump had apparently decided to announce the US withdrawal from Nafta at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania this weekend. When confronted with the inevitable consequences, he quickly reversed himself. This is typical of a president who seems to often fail to comprehend the practical implications of his cherished slogans.

The preposterous idea of building a wall along the Mexican border now seems practically dead. And the administration’s so-called budget and, worse, “tax plan” were little more than silly, fanciful and insubstantial press releases.

The administration is finally starting to fill second-tier jobs, but has been greatly hampered by lack of senior personnel. Personal loyalty to Mr Trump is an unusual new threshold that has stymied this process and a good deal of policy-making. The state department is pitifully forlorn and neglected, yet even this White House will discover it needs diplomats.

A surprising bright spot is Middle East policy, centred around rebuilding ties with traditional allies such as the Gulf Arab countries, Egypt and Israel, a greater willingness to project force in the region and determination to confront Iran. This is largely the handiwork of the grown-ups in the administration, led by Mr Trump’s best appointment, secretary of defence James Mattis.

However, attorney general Jeff Sessions is still pressing the last of the most nightmarish tropes of the Trump campaign to remain truly actionable: unashamedly white nationalist immigration policies. With the cooperation of the deeply disappointing homeland security secretary, John Kelly, Mr Sessions is preparing to unleash a dystopian war against undocumented migrants that could historically and permanently scar American society.

This administration even claims law enforcement officers can order the deportation of any undocumented migrant based on the merest suspicion of any crime, with no due process whatsoever. The cruelties and injustices are already beginning to mount.

These xenophobic and chauvinistic attitudes are also reflected in the anti-Muslim “travel ban”, which is thankfully still mired in the courts. The Islamophobic attitudes of some White House officials are directly at odds with those of Mr Mattis, national security adviser HR McMaster, and other sensible foreign policy officials.

Yet clearly this white nationalist camp, centred on Mr Sessions – and not, as some mistakenly think, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon – retains a disturbing degree of influence, even as Mr Trump has been otherwise shedding his populism and pushing a conventional right-wing Republican agenda.

His virtually discarded white working-class base now only stands to get a pointless anti-immigrant rampage, combined with massive cuts in health care and other services plus gigantic tax cuts for the rich and corporations.

Another major concern is administration corruption: a maze of conflicts of interest, self-dealing, nepotism and other real and potential improprieties swirl around a White House centred on a president who is a walking brand, and who has in no meaningful sense distanced himself from his private financial interests. His daughter, Ivanka, among others, is also combining policy work with personal branding and pecuniary interests.

This is American terra incognita. Ultimately, many untested and unsettled laws and regulations regarding unprecedented issues of White House corruption will be resolved and new standards established. With luck, the integrity of the American republic won’t be completely eviscerated.

While the administration’s own ineffectiveness and incompetence have been its biggest obstacles, American institutions have proven bracingly resilient to Mr Trump’s “populism” and authoritarian instincts. The White House and Republican-controlled Congress have no clue how to cooperate, even though they are nominal major allies. And the administrative bureaucracy, other governance institutions, and, above all, courts, have, thus far, provided crucial roadblocks to many of his worst initiatives. Mr Trump thus far barely avoids a failing grade. Charitably, he can only be given a solid D, must improve – though in some ways, perhaps, it’s better if he doesn’t.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

On Twitter: @ibishblog